By CASEY CROUCHER
AURIESVILLE -- Members of the World Peace and Health Organization met at the Western Supreme Buddhist Shrine Tuesday morning to address the organization's issues with its neighboring Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs.
The WPHO, which bought the shrine's old retreat building in 2006 and transformed it into a Buddhist temple, filed a lawsuit June 13 against the shrine and Father George Belgarde.
The lawsuit states that the WPHO originally had an agreement to construct a separate access road to its temple instead of using Shrine Road when it purchased the property. The organization obtained a building permit in September 2009 and because the elevation difference between Ripley Road and the WPHO's property was too high, the organization requested to use nearly 10 feet of the shrine's property near the entrance.
Father Peter Murray, the shrine's director at the time, allowed the organization to use 10 feet of property and the WPHO started building the road, which it dubbed "Friendship Road," in November 2009.
The organization put down a road bed and gravel, but didn't pave it. The lawsuit states they spent $40,000 on this first phase of construction.
However, from April to August 2013, Belgarde reportedly erected barricades on Shrine Road and Friendship Road, obstructing the paths for visitors to the temple. The barricades sparked the WPHO to file a lawsuit against the shrine, which was dismissed Sept. 23, 2013, by Montgomery County Court Judge Felix Catena.
On March 7 the organization received a letter from Belgarde requesting they finish paving Friendship Road by April 1, the lawsuit states. The WPHO wrote a letter back explaining that they could not complete the paving due to the "previous unresolved dispute over Friendship Road." The organization requested a meeting with Belgarde to "discuss about sharing the expense of repairing the Shrine Road."
WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong said Belgarde "ignored [their] requests and refused to meet with [them] several times."
On June 12 the organization allegedly found the curb of Friendship Road partially removed and "what appeared to be a new road being constructed to join the [shrine's] road with Friendship Road," the lawsuit states.
After the lawsuit was filed, Wong said the organization just wanted to make peace with Belgarde.
"We are not looking to fight," she said. "We just want religious harmony."
However, after shrine workers erected concrete block barriers, put up yellow caution tape, and tore up the pavement of Shrine Road with a tractor and backhoe right before the entrance to the temple, the Buddhist group's Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi spoke to organization members and the press, with English translation by Wong, about the organization's mission.
"We are here to do good deeds and help prosper this area and this nation," Shi said. "Our philosophy is 'do good deeds, don't do bad deeds.'"
He said Christians preach Jesus Christ's advice to "love your neighbor as yourself," but he said Belgarde has been guilty of not doing that.
He said the reason the temple's access road was named Friendship Road was because it was out of friendship and the WPHO would allow anyone to use it.
During Tuesday's press conference two WPHO members held a banner displaying the words "Stop the father from discriminating against Chinese and blocking the roads," behind him as he spoke. The same banner was propped against a tree next to the torn up pavement of Shrine Road.
Shi said because Belgarde's actions have caused "severe discrimination against the Chinese [they] feel extremely endangered."
He did say he wants the case to be resolved harmoniously.
Attorney Carmel Greco of Johnstown-based Murphy-Niles & Greco, who is representing Belgarde and the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, said the property the WPHO is angry about is private.
"Friendship Road, as the Buddhist temple people call it, is a road that they built for access to their property which they were required to do when they bought the property from the shrine back in 2006," Greco said. "When they bought the property in 2006 they agreed that in five years they would build their own access road. It was part of the transaction, part of that road they built encroaches on the shrine's property, however."
He said the organization was given permission to use Shrine Road for access to the temple until the access road was built, but the organization continued to use Shrine Road as well as Friendship Road once it was built.
Greco said Shrine Road is the shrine's property.
"Shrine Road is nothing more than a glorified driveway," he said. "It's not a road owned by the town, county, state or federal government. It's a private driveway completely owned by the shrine and completely located on the shrine's property. They are accusing the shrine of barricading the portion of Shrine Road which lies entirely on shrine property which we are completely free to do because it is our property, it's our driveway, it's not a public road."
Greco said he hadn't seen the shrine's barricade yet but said he knew they were planning to put the concrete blocks in the road and tear up the pavement.
He does not know why the shrine wanted to tear up the road but he said they had the right to do it.
"Do you own your own home?" he asked. "Assume you do. It's perfectly legal to tear up your own driveway if you feel like. That's what the shrine's doing; whatever they're doing is on their own driveway. The Buddhists are claiming they have a right to Shrine Road but they have their own access road. If we are blocking the portion of the road from people using it then it's perfectly legal; they have the right to do whatever they're doing."
Greco said he responded to the WPHO's lawsuit and intends to make an application to the court to have the lawsuit dismissed.